Fail of the Week: How Not to Design an RF Signal Generator

We usually reserve the honor of Fail of the Week for one of us – someone laboring at the bench who just couldn’t get it together, or perhaps someone who came perilously close to winning a Darwin Award. We generally don’t highlight commercial products in FotW, but in the case of this substandard RF signal generator, we’ll make an exception.

We suppose the fail-badge could be pinned on [electronupdate] for this one in a way; after all, he did shell out $200 for the RF Explorer signal generator, which touts coverage from 24 MHz to 6 GHz. But in true lemons-to-lemonade fashion, the video below he provides us with a thorough analysis of the unit’s performance and a teardown of the unit.

The first step is a look at the signal with a spectrum analyzer, which was not encouraging. Were the unit generating a pure sine wave as it should, we wouldn’t see the forest of spikes indicating harmonics across the band. The oscilloscope isn’t much better; the waveform is closer to a square wave than a sine. Under the hood, he found a PIC microcontroller and a MAX2870 frequency synthesizer, but a conspicuous absence of any RF filtering components, which explains how the output got so crusty. Granted, $200 is not a lot to spend compared to what a lab-grade signal generator with such a wide frequency range would cost. And sure, external filters could help. But for $200, it seems reasonable to expect at least some filtering.

We applaud [electronupdate] for taking one for the team here and providing some valuable tips on RF design dos and don’ts. We’re used to seeing him do teardowns of components, like this peek inside surface-mount inductors, but we like thoughtful reviews like this too.

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A Guide To Audio Amps For Radio Builders

For hams who build their own radios, mastering the black art of radio frequency electronics is a necessary first step to getting on the air. But if voice transmissions are a goal, some level of mastery of the audio frequency side of the equation is needed as well. If your signal is clipped and distorted, the ham on the other side will have trouble hearing you, and if your receive audio is poor, good luck digging a weak signal out of the weeds.

Hams often give short shrift to the audio in their homebrew transceivers, and [Vasily Ivanenko] wants to change that with this comprehensive guide to audio amplifiers for the ham. He knows whereof he speaks; one of his other hobbies is jazz guitar and amplifiers, and it really shows in the variety of amps he discusses and the theory behind them. He describes a number of amps that perform well and are easy to build. Most of them are based on discrete transistors — many, many transistors — but he does provide some op amp designs and even a design for the venerable LM386, which he generally decries as the easy way out unless it’s optimized. He also goes into a great deal of detail on building AF oscillators and good filters with low harmonics for testing amps. We especially like the tip about using the FFT function of an oscilloscope and a signal generator to estimate total harmonic distortion.

The whole article is really worth a read, and applying some of these tips will help everyone do a better job designing audio amps, not just the hams. And if building amps from discrete transistors has you baffled, start with the basics: [Jenny]’s excellent Biasing That Transistor series.

[via Dangerous Prototypes]

Algae On Your Plate

For those of us who grow up around natural swimming holes, algae are the reason we have to wash after taking a dip. Swimmer’s itch* or just being covered in green goop is not an attractive way to spend an afternoon. Lumping all algae together is not fair, some of it is nasty but some of it is delicious and humans have been eating it for generations.

If you are thinking that cases of algae cuisine are not widespread and that algae does not sound appealing, you are not alone. It is a tough sell, like convincing someone to try dandelions for the first time. It may not warrant a refrigerator section in the grocery store yet, but algae can produce protein-rich food which doesn’t require a lot of processing.

Currently, there is a lot of work to be done to bring up the efficiency of algae farms, and Qualitas has already started. The leaps they are making signify just how much room we have for improvement. The circulating paddle wheels, which can be seen in the video below the break, use one-third of the energy from their previous version. Their harvester uses one-thirtieth! Right now, their biggest cost comes from tanks of carbon dioxide, which seems off given that places such as power plants pay to get rid of the stuff. That should give some food for thought.

The 2018 Hackaday prize could use some algal submissions and you could take that to the bank. Ready to start growing your own algae, automate the process. It may also keep you from tripping while walking to the grocery store, or you can print with it.

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Classifying Crystals With An SDR Dongle

When it comes to radio frequency oscillators, crystal controlled is the way to go when you want frequency precision. But not every slab of quartz in a tiny silver case is created equal, so crystals need to be characterized before using them. That’s generally a job for an oscilloscope, but if you’re clever, an SDR dongle can make a dandy crystal checker too.

The back story on [OM0ET]’s little hack is interesting, and one we hope to follow up on. The Slovakian ham is building what looks to be a pretty sophisticated homebrew single-sideband transceiver for the HF bands. Needed for such a rig are good intermediate frequency (IF) filters, which require matched sets of crystals. He wanted a quick and easy way to go through his collection of crystals and get a precise reading of the resonant frequency, so he turned to his cheap little RTL-SDR dongle. Plugged into a PC with SDRSharp running, the dongle’s antenna input is connected to the output of a simple one-transistor crystal oscillator. No schematics are given, but a look at the layout in the video below suggests it’s just a Colpitts oscillator. With the crystal under test plugged in, the oscillator produces a huge spike on the SDRSharp spectrum analyzer display, and [OM0ET] can quickly determine the center frequency. We’d suggest an attenuator to change the clipped plateau into a sharper peak, but other than that it worked like a charm, and he even found a few dud crystals with it.

Fascinated by the electromechanics of quartz crystals? We are too, which is why [Jenny]’s crystal oscillator primer is a good first stop for the curious.

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Pimp My Scope

Most of us have heard some form of the adage, “You can buy cheaper, but you’ll never pay less.” It means that cheaper products ultimately do not stand up to the needs of their superior counterparts. Hackers love to prove this aphorism wrong by applying inexpensive upgrades to inexpensive tools to fill up a feature-rich tool bag. Take [The Thought Emporium] who has upgraded an entry-level microscope into one capable of polarized and dark-field microscopy. You can also see the video after the break.

Functionally, polarized images can reveal hidden features of things like striations in crystals or stress lines in hot glue threads. Dark-field microscopy is like replacing the normally glaring white background with a black background, and we here at Hackaday approve of that décor choice. Polarizing filters sheets are not expensive and installation can be quick, depending on your scope. Adding a dark-field filter could cost as much as a dime.

Like most mods, the greatest investment will be your time. That investment will pay back immediately by familiarizing you with your tools and their workings. In the long-run, you will have a tool with greater power.

Simple mods like the light source can be valuable, but upgrades are not limited to optical scopes, an electron microscope was brought back to life with Arduino

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This Dust Collector Will Blow You Away.

As [Marius Hornberger] was working in his woodshop, a thunderous bang suddenly rocked the space. A brief search revealed the blower for the dust collector had shifted several inches despite being stoutly fastened down. Turns out, the blower had blown itself up when one of the impeller fins came loose. Time to revise and build a bigger, better dust collector!

[Hornberger] is thorough in describing his process, the video series chronicles where he went astray in his original design and how he’s gone about improving on those elements. For instance, the original impeller had six fins which meant fewer points to bear the operating stresses as well as producing an occasionally uncomfortable drone. MDF wasn’t an ideal material choice here either, contributing to the failure of the part.

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